Tag Archives: The Hill

When Interests and Values Collide in Middle East Policy

{Previously published in The Hill}

Advancing a country’s foreign policy interests usually means coming to terms with the inherent contradictions between national values and strategic interests. Translation: sometimes you must consort with unsavory characters. Just as the United States did during World War II, when it allied with the Soviet Union in the name of the greater good to defeat Nazi Germany, sometimes you have to temporarily align with a nation that commits despicable deeds to advance broader goals.

Europe soon will be asked to decide whether to support new U.S.-initiated, non-nuclear sanctions against Iran. Will the Europeans choose economic interests over their proclaimed liberal values?

To advance their national interests for trade, Europeans have turned a blind eye to Iran’s misdeeds: its direct support of Syria, a government that commits genocide; its attempts to eliminate Israel, a member state of the United Nations; its continued use of the slogan “Death to America!”; and its use of proxies such as Hezbollah to target civilians in terrorist attacks. Have European nations crossed a line by rationalizing their economic interests while enriching a regime that is a leading state sponsor of terror?

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, has pointed out that Europeans aim to convince skeptics that “renewed economic activity in Iran (will) ultimately strengthen Iranian civil society.” But Iran has undermined this argument by using the billions of dollars in economic relief from the 2015 nuclear agreement not to improve quality of life for its citizens but instead to inflame conflicts in Yemen and Syria and to advance its expansionist goals.

European governments — and too many Americans — allow themselves to believe the protestations of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini that nuclear weapons conflict with Islam and that “the Iranian leadership’s aversion to developing chemical and nuclear weapons is deep-rooted and sincere.” Yet Iran unconditionally supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his use of chemical weapons on civilians.

After concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi reaffirmed: “Iran’s commitment to not seek nuclear weapons is permanent.” But this month, the head of Iran’s atomic agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, became the latest official to contradict Iran’s policy against acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities, saying, “If senior Islamic Republic officials issue an order to resume the 20 percent enrichment, we can do it in (the) Fordo (nuclear facility) within 4 days.” (As a reminder, there is no need to enrich uranium beyond 5 percent if your desire is a peaceful nuclear program.)

Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, notes that Iran’s threats “confirm that the Iranian regime never gave up on its atomic weapon ambitions. … Iran has pathways to dozens of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking U.S. forces, U.S. allies, and eventually the U.S. homeland.”

The JCPOA has allowed Iran to continue unfettered research and development for advanced centrifuges. That means the Obama administration and Europeans claimed a Pyrrhic victory, mothballing obsolete Iranian IR-1 centrifuges while acquiescing to the Iranian demand for the development of the next generation of ultrafast centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

Iran is not the only nation whose despicable behavior and anti-Western rhetoric have been met with a hands-off response by the United States and its European allies. Iran’s ally, Turkey, has shown its hypocrisy this month. Before the U.S.-led missile strikes on Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the West for not doing anything about Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the Syrian government’s genocide. But because Turkey is allied with Assad’s patrons, Iran and Russia, Erdoğan refused to criticize Moscow for saying there was no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma.

Gen. Joseph Votel in late February warned Congress about rising tensions among all these parties in Syria, and said that Russia and Iran will try to erode the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey, a member of NATO.

Yes, sometimes it is indeed difficult to balance national values and strategic interests. But going forward, the Western allies need to draw a firm line with extremist, revolutionary and theocratic regimes that try to undermine our long-term security interests. Otherwise, we risk dangerous repercussions for emphasizing economic interests when security is paramount.

Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and policy groups on the Middle East, and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.

Is Favoring Israel an American National Security Interest  

{Previously published in The Hill}

Should the United States distance itself from Israel to become a neutral negotiator?  According to a Wall Street Journal article, the Trump administration’s recent “moves have been seen as favoring Israel by Europeans, the Palestinians and their supporters.”

Lost in the discussion is whether America’s national security interests would be best served as a neutral intermediary, or, as Nikki Haley recently said, “There’s nothing wrong with showing favoritism towards an ally.”

Is Israel a strategically vital ally?

Back in 201, the Washington Institute’s Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe said, “There is no other Middle East country whose definition of national interests is so closely aligned with that of the United States.” Today those interests include reigning in Iranian expansionism and its quest for weapons of mass destruction, while combating both radical Sunni and Shiite Islamist terrorism.

The State Department, over the years, has been reluctant to “take sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that this would have negative effects for America’s other interests in the region.

However, it seems this has not advanced American interests or brought peace to the region. It has magnified Palestinian intransigence, while draining American taxpayer dollars, propping up a corrupt Palestinian Authority without demanding anything substantial of it.

Beyond shared democratic western values, does Israel advance American interests?

In the 21st century, intelligence and cyber-defense are paramount for security. For the United States, there is no better source of reliable information in the Middle East than Israel. The Israelis live in this bad neighborhood and understand the realities better than those on the outside.

It was Israel that discovered the North Korean-built Syrian nuclear reactor and destroyed it. Can you imagine the threat to American security if there were loose nukes in today’s Syria? Who would control them — ISIS, Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, or Iran? These days, do we want our military in the region to be dependent on Turkey’s President Erdogan?

Today the United States has a reliable naval port in Haifa, joint military exercises preparing its soldiers, American troops manning the X-band anti-missile system in Israel to protect Europe, Israeli security technology for U.S. homeland security, and Israel’s advances in drone technology to benefit our military.

It should be clear to all that the present Palestinian leadership is incapable of making the hard but essential choices for real peace, a demilitarized state, ending the claim of a “right of return” of descendants of Palestinians refugees to Israel, accepting a Jewish State, and signing a final end-of-conflict agreement.

The Palestinians disengaged from meaningful negotiations years ago. President Abbas used the opportunity of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement to end America’s primary role in mediating the conflict, moving it to the more friendly confines of an internationalized mediation. Abbas knows full well that the Europeans are his best ally and advocate, with the deck stacked against Israel.

As retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog wrote in World AffairsAbbas “was afraid of the U.S. peace plan coming his way, felt he would have to reject it — while Israel may say yes — and didn’t want to navigate that situation.”

Pro-Palestinian Americans, such as Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, have encouraged the Palestinian leadership to distance itself from America; Khalidi called  the United States the “eternally dishonest broker” in an op-ed in The Nation. A binational state controlled by Palestinians, where Israel now stands, would be an unreliable American strategic partner and would cripple American security in the Levant.

Far too many American secretaries of State have wanted to be the one to be the hero to cut the Gordian knot, to do something about the Arab-Israeli situation, so they have pressured Israel to make major concessions. American administrations have pressured Israel repeatedly because it is the one party in the conflict that is susceptible to pressure.

Unacknowledged by the realist school of thought advocated by Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Israel over the years has taken profound risks to accommodate American interests to its own detriment. President George W. Bush’s demand for Palestinian elections in 2006, against Israeli advice, directly led to Hamas’ takeover of Gaza. Bush’s father demanded that Israel break its own strategic doctrine by not responding to the Iraqi Scud attack during the Gulf War.

If a Western-style peace settlement is beyond possible in the shifting sands of the Islamic Middle East, what, then, will advance American security interests? The problem is that our interests have moved way beyond the conflict over the past decade, with our primary security problem being Iranian hegemony and its alignment with anti-American allies and proxies — Russia, Syria, Hezbollah and Turkey’s Erdogan.

So, how can America and Israel move forward without a Palestinian partner? The best, but still unlikely, possibility is encouraging the Sunni Arab Gulf states to start dealing with Israel as an equal and legitimate nation in the open, forcing the Palestinians to make more reasonable demands. The idea of treating these two belligerents evenly is morally obtuse, but treating them fairly according to our interests is appropriate.

Yes, American foreign policy interests would be advanced if there is resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but not at the expense of endangering the security interests of its indispensable ally Israel — security interests that are vital to combating Iranian, Turkish and Russian expansionism. You need only to look at Turkey, the eastern flank of NATO, to know how important Israel has become to American long-term security interests in the region.

Favoring Israel is an American national security interest. It lets our other allies know that America sticks with its longtime friends, and warns our adversaries not to underestimate American loyalty.

Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political and Information Network (MEPIN™). He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East.

Is the US doing more harm than good in Syria and Lebanon? 

{Previously published in The Hill} 

Quite simply, the situation in Syria is a mess, with no easy or predictable solutions.

It is likely that a year from now the situation will look worse, even if ISIS is totally defeated. There are Sunni Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda militias, all eager to fill the radical Sunni vacuum, and in it for the long haul.

In the humanitarian disaster known as East Ghouta, the Sunni “rebels” consist of the Islam Army; Tahrir al-Sham, an al Qaeda affiliate; and Failaq al-Rahman and the Free Syrian Army who are affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood. To make your head spin, Islam Army and Failaq al-Rahman are at each other’s throats.

Your choices in Syria are bad and worse, but figuring out what’s worse isn’t easy. Any wise strategist knows well enough that an American “friend” in the Levant, other than Israel, is only a temporary friend sharing for the moment a strategic interest. But choosing the wrong temporary friend can backfire — and abandoning “friends,” as we did various Kurdish allies in the region, also has turned out to be a poor choice and tainted us as an unreliable ally.

David Goldman wrote in Asia Times: “What is painfully clear is that Kurds have been abandoned by the United States. …. Washington’s abandonment of the Kurds left them with no other choice but to turn to the Assad government and its Russian backers.”

The area around Afrin in the northwest of Syria on the Turkish border is far from East Ghouta in the southeast, but both display the continued deterioration of American power and credibility in the Levant.

The result of the defeat of ISIS in Syria is certainly disappointing to anyone who thought there was light at the end of the tunnel. The decline of ISIS has simply meant the ascendency of Shiite Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad, while the United States has been marginalized with little influence or leverage for its own or its allies’ security interests.

The resulting power vacuum has only facilitated the achievement of an Iranian corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Back in September, the Syrians already had crossed into the supposed deconfliction zones in Deir el-Zour, a key strategic area for an Iranian land corridor through Syria into Lebanon.

Second, the American belief that millions of dollars of arms for the Lebanese army is a necessary path for stabilization is dangerously wrong. It actually supports Iran and destabilizes Lebanon. Though the Lebanese army asserts its independence, Israeli officials have warned the army is aligned with Hezbollah, an arm of Iran and an ally of Assad and Russia.

There are no shortcuts or even guideposts of what to do in the region, but some United States choices clearly were wrong from the get-go. The vacuums created by the Obama administration, and the Trump administration’s outsourcing of security by trusting Russia to enforce deconfliction zones in Syria, were two among many poor strategic choices.

Let’s be clear — in the short, medium and long term, American troops are more endangered by these choices, not less, as isolationists would have you believe.

When Israel’s northern Iranian border erupts, i.e. the Lebanese and Syrian border, Hezbollah could have at its disposal American-made Super Tucano attack planes, attack helicopters, and Bradley armored personnel carriers.

When Israel inevitably hits Lebanese forces aligned with Hezbollah, there will be clash of interests between America and Israel. The Trump administration, like previous American governments, suffers from the delusion that there is a real separation between Hezbollah and the Lebanese military or government. Hezbollah — and therefore, Iran — controls Syria with Russian help. There will be an Iranian naval port on the Mediterranean in Syria.

Despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent comment regarding Hezbollah’s malignant influence in Lebanon, he said Washington remains “committed to supporting the Lebanese army and the internal security forces.” The United States must get over the illusion that the Lebanese army is a force against terrorism, and perceive its alignment with Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.

According to INSS Eldad Shavit, Russian media announced that the “Russian Ministry of Defense has been instructed to begin talks with its Lebanese counterpart, with the goal of signing a cooperative agreement between Russia and Lebanon. The agreement is supposed to include the opening of Lebanese seaports and airports to Russian military maritime vessels and planes. Russia is also reportedly interested in assisting the Lebanese army with training and military equipment.”

By extension, are we now helping Russian and Iranian interests in Lebanon?

Is the United States doing more harm than good in northwest Syria, near Manbij and Jarabulus, where Turkish forces attacked American Kurdish allies, threatening U.S. forces in the region? Turkey and America appear to be on a collision course, with Turkish President Erdogan demanding the United States stop aiding the Kurds. But according to CNN, Tillerson stopped short of demanding an end to Turkish provocations.

So, whose side is the United States choosing in Syria — the Kurdish YGP, which is the largest contingent of the U.S.-friendly Syrian Democratic Forces, or the Turks who are technically part of NATO but are more akin to a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated nation, on the march for new territory?

It is not too late for America to protect its interests in the region, but that will require a clear vision and coordination among those voicing its foreign policy.

Eric R. Mandel is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and policy groups on the Middle East, and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.